Why Obama Is So Bad at Negotiations

The president's promise to tackle our problems together as one nation drew many to him, but the reality of that model is terrible for liberals

As the dust settles on the debt-ceiling fiasco, liberals are left scratching their heads and wondering what the heck happened. Public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of a balanced approach to deficit reduction and 67 percent of Americans believe we should be focusing on the economy rather than the deficit. With public opinion in our favor and a few fail-safe constitutional options in our back pocket, how did this showdown end in complete and utter surrender?

As it turns out, the reason liberals got a bad deal here is the same reason we got a bad deal on extending the Bush Tax Cuts, and in the budget showdown, and even when it came to health-care reform. Despite overwhelming and irrefutable evidence to the contrary, President Obama continues to believe that he can negotiate with Republicans.

In the health-care debate, the president tried to get Republicans on board by offering a conservative proposal based on Heritage Foundation recommendations and Republican Mitt Romney's health-care overhaul. Rather than being impressed by his reasonable and centrists approach, Republicans instead portrayed the public option as an evil communist plot, screamed about death panels, and outrageously sought to portray the plan as an attack on Medicare. Even though Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and had a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, GOP demagoguery proved effective enough that in the end a watered-down health-care bill barely made it over the finish line. And it continues to be under threat of repeal.

When it came time to deal with the expiration of the Bush Tax Cuts, President Obama again immediately abandoned the liberal -- and his own original -- position of allowing all of the Bush Tax Cuts to expire and started negotiating from the centrist position of allowing only the Bush Tax Cuts over $250,000 to expire. By holding hostage the extension of unemployment benefits, Republicans quickly got their way in the tax talks. Not only were all of the Bush Tax Cuts extended, the wealthy were given a substantial estate tax break as well. As Paul Krugman pointed out at the time, Obama indicated that he did not include a debt-ceiling increase as part of the deal because he takes "John Boehner at his word -- that nobody, Democrat or Republican, is willing to see the full faith and credit of the United States government collapse, that that would not be a good thing to happen."

Well, we know now how that played out.

The next hostage situation arrived when it was time to pass a budget or face a government shutdown. The impasse was broken when the president agreed to what he called "the biggest annual spending cut in history." At $38.5 billion, it was actually a larger cut than Republicans had originally asked for, leading comedian Bill Maher to joke, "You can always tell when Obama's negotiations with the Republicans are winding down, because he's missing his watch and his lunch money."

That brings us to the current debt-ceiling hostage situation in which Republicans, led by tea party extremists, decided to threaten not only a government shutdown but total economic shutdown. Déjà vu all over again: First the president offered a plan that included $4 trillion in deficit reduction, with cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security all on the table in exchange for a few hundred billion in revenue from closing corporate tax loopholes. This initial proposal was far to the right of what his own Bipartisan Fiscal Commission proposed. When this "grand bargain" was shot down and the president ruled out using the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to unilaterally increase the debt ceiling, there was nothing to do but surrender.

And what of the final deal? The president remarked that he would "continue to make a detailed case to these lawmakers about why I believe a balanced approach is necessary to finish the job."

He can make that case all he wants but it's not going to make a difference. Public opinion is already overwhelmingly in favor of a balanced approach. And public opinion does not matter when dealing with Republicans so long as they are not open to negotiating.

Six months from now we will still have an extreme Republican caucus driven by bomb-throwing tea partiers. We will still have Grover Norquist and his anti-tax zealotry. We will still have the Club for Growth and other right-wing and tea party groups demanding that Republicans maintain complete ideological purity or face a primary challenge. You can probably make a pretty good guess as to what the outcome of Round Two of the debt ceiling fight will be just by finding out what the Republicans want and then tacking to the right by about 10 or 20 percent.

While we lament the undermining of the progressive agenda and ask ourselves if things would really be much different had we elected John McCain, it's worth examining whether President Obama's worldview is actually illustrative of a fundamental difference between the liberal and conservative worldview. At their core, liberals assume that humans are fundamentally good and decent. This means that we believe that people are trying the best they can to make it and only ask for help when they really need it. It also means that we tend to assume our counterparts on the other side of the aisle are fundamentally decent and committed to doing what's in the country's best interest.

Conversely, conservatives assume that humans are fundamentally lazy and prone to immorality. In this view, the entitlement system coddles and rewards laziness. This cynicism spills over into their view of government and government "bureaucrats." It also spills over into their political tactics. While President Obama assumes that at their core the Republican leadership team is just trying to do what's best for America, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner assume that the president is cynically trying to secure his own reelection, power, and legacy.

The truth is, that while the president's idealism has made him a very poor negotiator, it is what attracted me and I suspect many others to him in the first place. His lack of cynicism and belief that we could tackle our problems together as one nation was unique, beautiful and stunning in our modern political system. I still find it an appealing vision, so as the dust settles on another terrible deal -- with the prospect of more terrible deals in the future -- I find myself both intensely disappointed by the president and intensely proud of his continuing idealism.

That leaves me unsure whether or not I hope that the president has learned his lesson. But it doesn't matter: I feel pretty confident that it's a lesson he is unable or unwilling to learn, anyway.

Image credit: Pete Souza/The White House